Clumsy Cover-up by Thai Airways

September 18, 2013 | Charles Bowen

In a bizarre bit of damage control last week, Thai Airways ordered maintenance crews to scurry out to the site of a recently crashed jet and paint over all identifying marks on the plane. If ever a situation could be described as a “cover-up,” this would be it.

Reporters from around the world noted that it only took a few hours before the Thai Airways jet that skidded off a runway in Bangkok had the plane’s purple and gold logo painted over with black paint. To the airline’s credit, they did make sure to evacuate the 288 frantic passengers before getting to work on the new paint job.

Thai Airways has since responded to the criticism by trying to pass the buck off on its air alliance partners. A spokesperson for Thai initially claimed that the airline was simply acting in accordance with the crisis communication rules of Star Alliance. The spokesperson said that all Star Alliance members (which include United and US Airways) are required to “de-identify” any aircraft involved in an accident. Though the story almost sounded true, a Star Alliance spokesman quickly issued a statement denying that any such de-identification rules exist.

Evidently the practice is not completely unheard of. According to an article in The Guardian, the same thing happened earlier this year when an Alitalia plane veered off the runway in Rome, injuring 16 passengers in the process. Alitalia’s own Director of Operations admitted to scrambling to paint over the airline’s logo, saying that the practice was routinely used all over the world. The Alitalia exec claimed that blacking out a carrier’s livery is a normal way of protecting a company’s reputation. In fact, Eastern Airlines did it in 1987, Air Algerie did it in 2006 and China Airlines did it in 2007.

Experts in the industry say concealing a plane’s logo can make sense in cases where a damaged plane will be left in public view for a considerable amount of time. The worry among the airlines is that pictures will be beamed around the world showing their damaged plane, turning off potential customers. The move was somewhat more perplexing in this case given the relatively short time the plane was left on the runway and the damage done by the firestorm that erupted following the very public cover-up. Many have noted that the decision to cover the logo has actually resulted in more news articles than the relatively minor accident itself.

Crisis response experts say that in the Instagram era, such actions make little sense and can often result in even more negative attention for the company trying to perpetrate the cover-up. These PR people note that when the China Airlines crash happened in 2007, there was no such thing as Instagram (and Twitter had only just started). In 1987, Eastern Airlines certainly did not need to worry about stories spreading through social media. Today, reports note that it took only 20 seconds for the first photo of the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco to appear on Twitter. This real-time stream of information makes it difficult to whitewash negative events and airlines need to reevaluate their crisis response policies. If not, their cover-ups will likely continue to receive even more attention than the incident itself.

Topics: liability